Deru’s New Project Explores the Concept of Memory
Photo by Tim Navis
“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” —Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Memories don’t live like people do.” —Beenie Man
Deru isn’t trying to recover memories; he’s attempting to remix them. From his basement studio in Silver Lake, the electronic composer, born Benjamin Wynn, grapples with the shifty origami of our temporal lobes. His latest album, last month’s 1979 , is part art object, part time capsule and part ambient film score to the saturnine home movies buried in your mind.
“Our brains are so selective and fallible. I can remember lyrics to rap songs from when I was 11 years old, but someone can say their name to me and I can’t remember it five minutes later,” Wynn marvels, wearing professorial black spectacles, a plume of brown hair, gray shirt and jeans and a fixed, serious gaze.
This home in the Silver Lake hills has been the locus for Wynn’s creative pursuits since he bought it eight years ago. Over that period, the Chicago-bred CalArts graduate has scored a ballet and released two full-length albums and two more EPs under the Deru alias. His chief source of income has been sound design for hit animated Nickelodeon shows such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra.
Wynn’s compositions have netted him a Peabody Award, an Emmy and paydays steady enough to acquire the Porsche parked in his driveway. But over the last few years, his spare time has been poured into 1979, a multimedia collaboration named for the year of his birth, orchestrated with a team of video directors, 3-D artists and modelers, cinematic trailer directors and a local mythologist.
“Music and old photos trigger powerful emotions and it’s all contextual. It depends on why you’re remembering it, who you’re remembering it for or with,” Wynn says. “Memory is the history of who we are, and it’s frequently false.”
The death of his father, a former CIA agent turned businessmen, spurred Wynn to sculpt something from his shapeless mass of impressions. Its other primary inspiration — the one that guides the project’s narrative — traces back to a 2003 Glendale yard sale. It’s where Wynn stumbled upon the “original obverse box,” a time capsule trove of artifacts, letters and proto-hippie energy theories bequeathed by an eccentric Civil War–era theosophist named Jackson Sonnanfeld-Arden.
This plot sounds closer to the start of The Goonies or the Sanskrit prophecies of the gypsy Melquiades in One Hundred Years of Solitude. But using the box as his jumping-off point, Wynn imagined his own memory box. The music, a doleful keyboard meditation, is encased in an ornate, walnut block, which doubles as a working film projector. Each of the nine songs comes with a distinct video, giving the album a cinematic feel that expands well beyond the usual cliché. Only 50 copies were made, with the first 40 selling out despite a $500 price (roughly what it cost to manufacture). The last 10 are retailing for $1,000 apiece; nearly all are gone.
“These days, music is so devalued as to be almost worthless. This is a design art object,” Wynn says. “Price is context and perception. It’s only expensive in the musical context. In the electronics world, it’s adequate. In the art world, it’s cheap.”
Not to be slighted is the project’s interactive website (1979.la), which offers a gallery where users can submit an old photo or video in exchange for a free song. It includes offerings from Amon Tobin, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and How to Dress Well.
When consumed with holistic focus and absolute sincerity, 1979 is rattling and lethal, staggeringly ambitious and impressively executed. It’s something you won’t forget. Better yet, it’s another way to remember.
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